About 2000 years ago, the Romans built a stunning theater in the coastal Albanian town of Butrint during their military conquests of the Balkans. Today the ruins are witness to another battle, this one between opposing political factions in Albania, for control of this internationally recognized archaeological site. Caught in the crossfire is a British foundation that hopes to protect the theater and other structures spanning nearly 3 millennia in a country trying to emerge from decades of global isolation.
Archaeologists have traced Butrint's history to the 8th century B.C., when traders from Corfu are thought to have settled the site, on the tip of the Hexamil peninsula in southwest Albania. The Romans took control of Butrint around the 2nd century B.C., and the remains of Butrint's theater--along with a row of remarkable statues that includes the beautiful "goddess of Butrint"--were unearthed by Italian archaeologist Luigi Ugolini in 1920s. His team later excavated the Temple of Asclepulus, an Early Byzantine palace, and a baptistry with an exquisite mosaic floor featuring images of animals.
The battle over Butrint pits Albania's Ministry of Culture against the Institute of Archaeology and the Institute of Monuments, both based in Tirana, the capital. Last month, Culture Minister Edi Rama, appointed in April, stripped both institutes of authority at Butrint after an international body criticized them for failing to work together. The ministry itself took control, and Rama asked the London-based Butrint Foundation to help manage the site. Rama says that foreign support is critical to saving the deteriorating site: "The [Butrint] Foundation will help us develop research and excavations."
But on 28 July, archaeologists at the two institutes petitioned Albanian President Rexhep Meidani to block the collaboration. The opponents, who include former Monuments Director Reshad Gega, charge that the Butrint Foundation intends to profit from rising tourism at the site and to control revenue from future exhibitions of Butrint artifacts.
Rama and others say the petitioners' real beef is with the new government. "They are hostile to reforms being taken in the country" to strengthen ties with the West, says Rama. "We'll show with concrete results that our decision is not against Albania's interests." Adds Butrint Foundation scientific director Richard Hodges, head of the Institute of World Archaeology at the University of East Anglia in Norwich, U.K., "The dispute is the political consequence of an effort to make Butrint a major national asset."